I have written before about the animals of Tonga, but until recently I didn’t have my own pictures of the bird Tongans call “eki-aki” – the white tern. (I still only have a couple - thank you Google Images for the rest.)
I remember reading about these birds years ago in National Geographic. I had been here in Tonga almost two months before I found out that there were white terns on this island. Then it took me four more months to see some. It was an experience I have wanted for years, and it did not disappoint.
These birds, with their all-white feathers, dark blue beaks and legs, also have dark blue circles around their eyes, making their eyes look even larger than they are. This adds to their allure, as far as I’m concerned. About a dozen were resting on some tree branches when we got out to look for some other creatures, and the surprise of their flight and the seeming translucence of their wings was delightful.
White terns are small – smaller than pigeons. But they fly miles off the coast of islands in their search for food – mostly small herring-style fish. The birds notice waters being disturbed by whales or other predators chasing the small fish to the surface, and the birds dive and catch fish in their beaks, sometimes lining up two or three in a row.
White terns are talented little birds. They are one of the few birds who can hover. They are highly curious, and have been known to follow people who walk near their habitats, hovering just out of reach. This behavior has contributed to these terns being called “fairy terns” in Hawaii and some of the other islands of the Pacific.
One of the oddest behaviors of small birds is the way that adult terns lay eggs. They build no nest. A single egg is carefully balanced on a ledge, or in the crook of a tree, out of the reach of ground predators. When the egg hatches, the chick’s oversized feet help it grasp the branch and literally hang on for dear life. Both parents feed the chick. When the chick is two months old, it fledges, and the parents teach it to hunt for fish, and two weeks later the chick is on its own, flying and fishing for itself and maturing to start its own family.
Fairy or not, these magical birds have added to my spell of enchantment here in Tonga. They have made me appreciate the wonders of creation, and helped me value more the tenacity of life on this little fishhook island. And my wishing stars are now closer, and feathered.